HOULTON, Maine — Just three months into the 2021-2022 school year, most schools in Aroostook County have already exceeded the total number of positive cases of COVID-19 in their counties all year, nearly five times more in one county.
“My thoughts on the data, without a doubt, reflect the veracity of the delta COVID-19 strain and its cause for continuing to spread through our communities,” said SAD 70 superintendent Stephen Fitzpatrick.
The use of mandatory versus optional face coverings only slightly reduced the percentage of positive cases.
The dramatic increase in the total number of cases is something school districts are seeing across the state. But school officials hope the measures taken, including pool testing, will help students stay safe — and at school.
Two school districts—SAD 70 in Hodgdon and RSU 89 in Stacyville, Katahdin—are the only public schools in northern Maine to have an optional mask policy for students and staff. And while the percentage of positive cases is higher in both schools than in neighboring districts, it is not noticeably higher than one might expect.
Hodgdon registered 37 positive COVID-19 cases in the district on Wednesday, or about 7.64 percent of the population. Seven of those cases are in the staff, the remaining 30 in the student population. There are 486 students in the two schools in SAD 70, with over 100 employees.
A total of 260 students or staff (53.72 percent) had to be quarantined at various times. The district had 12 active cases on Friday.
Based on the current trend, Fitzpatrick said he hopes the numbers will eventually stabilize.
“I believe that as more people choose to avoid quarantine through pool testing and earlier stage detection of the virus, combined with both vaccination and natural build-up of immunity from contracting this virus, this particular strain will find its way into the community spread. slowing down,” he said. “My concern would be the possible next variant or species. This pandemic has taken its toll both in our schools and in communities, states and nations.”
Katahdin has reported 26 positive cases, or about 9.19 percent of the population of 283 college students.
In comparison, RSU 29 in Houlton, which has a mandatory mask policy, has experienced 90 positive cases — or about 6.7 percent of the population of 1,347 college students. A total of 743 students or employees (55 percent) were asked to go into quarantine at some point this school year.
That total number of cases is nearly five times the number for the entire 2020-21 school year.
“I don’t have exact numbers from last year, but my best guess would be a total of 20 cases,” said Holly Hodgkin, RSU 29 director of nursing. “We only saw our first case just before Thanksgiving last year. Our numbers are much higher this year and we also see a dispersion of the community.”
The number of students asked to go into quarantine could have been much higher if the district didn’t mandate mandatory masks and pool tests on students, Hodgkin said. But pool testing is optional and the number of participating students is low.
“Since the beginning of this school year, we have had 355 students who were able to stay in school thanks to that exception,” Hodgdkin says. “We have already surpassed our total number of cases from last year. I spoke to a CDC employee yesterday and she told me that what the RSU 29 district is seeing is common in many schools across the state this year.
In RSU 50 (Southern Aroostook), a total of 20 cases (5.8 percent) have been reported, requiring 135 students to be isolated or quarantined at some point. There are 343 students in the entire school district.
“We have more positive cases this year than last year,” said RSU 50 Superintendent and Principal Jon Porter. Required masking, our pooled testing program, social distancing measures and the cooperation of our parents in following the daily COVID-19 screener have helped us keep our numbers low. We have been lucky enough to continue with personal instruction.”
Two of The County’s larger school districts — SAD 1 in Presque Isle and RSU 39 in Caribou — have experienced even higher rates of COVID-19, despite mandatory mask policies.
Caribou Chief Inspector Tim Doak said his district has experienced a total of 90 COVID-19 cases (7.8 percent of the population). Of that number, 82 cases were students and eight employees.
Doak said the numbers were “definitely much worse than last year” as the district had just 28 cases in all for all of 2020-21.
In neighboring SAD 1, the results are not as dramatic. The district has so far reported 53 positive cases (3.1 percent), which is about the same number for the entire 2020-21 school year, Chief Superintendent Ben Greenlaw said.
“It seems strange to say, but we didn’t even have our first case of COVID in the district during the 2020-2021 school year through December 3,” he said. “My take on the data is that the delta variant of the coronavirus has proven to be highly contagious and has affected the students, staff and families in our district much more this year than last year.”
He said they do not see the virus spreading in the schools and that all but a few have been cases of students and staff bringing in COVID-19 from the wider community.
Greenlaw said he believes this trend is due to the many mitigation strategies in place in SAD 1, including wearing masks indoors, pooled testing, social distancing, contact tracing and regular hand washing.
“I cannot predict what our case numbers will be in the coming weeks and months, but I am hopeful that with students ages 5-11 now eligible for the COVID vaccination, we will see a reduction in the number of cases in our schools. as a result of a higher percentage of our school population being fully vaccinated,” said Greenlaw.